June 24, 2004
Both Sides of Seal Debate to Fight On
It came from Redlands like a fever: one of the most divisive religious battles to hit Los Angeles in years.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), fresh from successfully challenging the Redlands city seal a month earlier, set its sights on removing a Christian cross from the Los Angeles County seal in late May, claiming that it represented government endorsement of a religion. County supervisors acquiesced. Nearly 7,000 angry calls and letters promptly poured in, and approximately 2,000 people assembled before the supervisors' offices. Right-wing radio hosts and columnists marshaled crowds.
Though religious issues are always emotionally charged, in this case the conservative media whipped its supporters into a veritable frenzy. In his column, journalist Dennis Prager proclaimed: "What we have here is an American version of the Taliban," regarding the ACLU.
"It will have to go to the Supreme Court, which is perhaps where it belongs," Prager told The Journal.
The road to the uproar passed through four Board of Supervisors votes. First, a 3-2 vote, (Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky, Gloria Molina and Yvonne Burke against Don Knabe and Michael Antonovich), favored a settlement with the ACLU. That was followed by two identical 3-2 rejections of a proposal to entertain litigation offers from anti-ACLU law firms and a bid to estimate the costs of replacing the seal, a difficult exercise since the ACLU agreed to a gradual phaseout of the seal, not immediate removal. The fourth vote blocked Antonovich's proposal to put the entire issue to a November referendum.
"Our own county [attorney] opined that we would lose this case if we defended it because our seal was unconstitutional based on a half a dozen [similar] cases," Yaroslavsky said.
Yaroslavsky's office bore the brunt of the complaints, including accusations that he was anti-Christian.
"If the court cases allowed for religious symbols on government seals, even though I didn't agree with them, I would live with it," Yaroslavsky said. "We are a nation of laws, not of men. That's what we buy into as Americans. The rule of law on this issue is clear."
"Since when do county supervisors vote on what they think will happen in a courtroom?" Prager countered. "Those on the left are trying to destroy the fact that this is a country founded on one specific religion --Christianity -- and one specific value system, called Judeo-Christian."
Prager has publicly vowed not to drop the issue.
Supporters of the cross on the seal employed a combination of historical and religious arguments to bolster their position, simultaneously claiming that the cross is no more a religious symbol than the Greek goddess Pomona (also on the seal), but also that the seal represents a Christian legacy of the United States that should not be erased.
Bruce Einhorn, Pacific-Southwest chair of the Anti-Defamation League, saw the debate differently.
"Those who argue for [no cross on the seal] are those who believe that religion should be left alone, that government involvement in religion is not only unconstitutional but unproductive," Einhorn said. "It's almost like a Faustian bargain to let government endorse religious symbols, because in return our religions can become dependent on government and weakened."
Supporters of the cross on the seal tried to stress the unique relationship between Christianity and Judaism in forming American values.
"It is almost mind-numbing that Jews watching European anti-Semitism, seeing how America alone is supportive of Israel, would ever want America's value system to change," Prager said.
That emotional argument, however, also faced opposition.
"When I hear the phrase 'Judeo-Christian,' my experience has been that it has always been used to defend uniquely Christian symbols," Einhorn said. "That doesn't mean that I'm offended by the cross, I just don't understand how it enhances my religious tradition."
For its part, the ACLU has tried to avoid appearing anti-Christian or offensive. "We become involved when people in the community contact us," said Tenoch Flores, an ACLU spokesman. "I think there's been a misunderstanding there -- people thinking we're going around collecting notches on our belt."
It appears that this round of the county seal fight is drawing to a close. Opponents of the ACLU vow to collect enough signatures to put the issue on the November ballot, but time to do that is short.
In the meantime, there are four other counties and 11 cities in California with some sort of religious symbol on their seals.
L.A. County Supervisors are set to gradually replace the cross with a picture of a Catholic Spanish mission, including an homage to the Native Americans who built those missions.
That compromise, however, is unlikely to satisfy everyone.
"How do I know it's not a Taco Bell?" asked Prager when informed that there will be no cross on the building.